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Dec 4, 2008 02:15 PM

Cheese in Chinese Cuisine

How many authentic (ie., not fusion) Chinese dishes use, or incorporate, cheese?

When I say cheese, I mean actual cheese -- either from a cow, goat or whatnot.

What I don't mean is "Chinese cheese" or fermented, preserved tofu.

The only Chinese dish I can think of that has cheese is Yunnan Goat Cheese, served sprinkled with sugar and pepper.

Are there others?

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  1. Just what I've gleaned from educational TV, I'm told that the Chinese palate finds dairy products somewhat offensive.
    A generalization for sure, but I'm guessing that you'd be hard pressed to find many dishes incorporating cheese. Though Yak butter/cheese is used widely in Tibet.

    1. Not many....when I was growing up, general consensus was that Chinese didn't tolerate dairy very well. The first time I heard of those cheesey (as in filled with cheese, not referring to cheap) fried wonton appetizer things really threw me.

      1. Not quite about cheese, but here's a related thread.

        1. You're likely to find cheese any place that dairy is a major part of the diet. So in Mongolia you've got sliced and air-dried fresh cheeses, in Tibet there are fresh and hard cheeses, and in the Southwest you find a few goat cheeses. My grandfather had uncomplimentary things to say about a goat cheese he had in a village in Guangxi province, which is probably similar to the Yunnanese stuff.

          But in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, they just don't milk many animals. Without a dairy culture (pun intended), it's hard for cheese to become part of the traditional cuisine.

          2 Replies
          1. re: alanbarnes

            come to think of it isn't kumiss (the semi-national drink of Mongolia) based on fermented milk. Mare's milk, yes but it's still milk.

            1. re: jumpingmonk

              I think in general, it is the Han Chinese who steer clear of dairy. Mongolians are not Han people.

          2. The answer is no, there are no traditional Chinese (or Japanese) recipes that include cheese. For years and years I wondered why, then in researching something else I ran across a well researched scientific paper that said that most Asians are lactose intolerant. TaDAAAH! Why would any culture develop a food product that gave the vast majority of its members a tummy ache?

            I know. I know. Modern Japan has a fetish for cheese of any and all sorts. I suspect that Lactaid distributors in Japan are even richer than cheese mongers! '-)

            I'm too lazy to look it up, but somewhere on the web there is an interesting chart on percent of lactose intolerance among the various Asian population groups.

            29 Replies
            1. re: Caroline1

              ^ I was gonna say this. Also I believe it might draw parallels to alcohol in that it may have something to do with tea?

              Because black and green tea was drunk, the water was boiled and safe. They didn't use milk in their tea. and because tea was safe to drink, alcohol never caught on in such a big way as other places.

              I might be getting that confused, but it's interesting.

              1. re: Soop

                china, like most of asia, has been making wines and liquors out of rice and grains for a very, very long time.

              2. re: Caroline1

                Somewhere I read that the ability to digest lactose into adulthood was a fairly recent mutation for humans. The idea that I'm a mutant has always kind of tickled me.

                1. re: Caroline1


                  See my post above. China's a big place, with dozens of ethnic groups. You're right that lactose intolerance is common - and cheese uncommon - in most of the country. But there are concentrations of people who drink milk and eat cheese. These people may not be ethnic Han, but they are definitely Chinese.

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    You're exactly right, alan.

                    China is indeed a large place with many many different cultures and ethnicites. To simply pontificate that "Chinese are lactose intolerant" would be akin to saying that "Southern BBQ is always wood smoked".

                    Aside from those who live in Tibet, the Monguls from what I understand consumed quite a bit of sheep and goat's milk

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      I've actually visited Tibetan villages in the 90's (in Nepal, not actually Tibet or China) that had Swiss-funded cheese factories.

                  2. re: Caroline1

                    << Why would any culture develop a food product that gave the vast majority of its members a tummy ache? >>

                    I think you have the causation backwards there, Caroline. Lactose tolerance probably developed as an adaption to diets containing dairy. And actually, cheese isn't necessarily that bad, depending on the type. Using myself as an example, I'm fine with fairly large quantities of parmesan/pecorino/etc type cheeses. Milk, though, I need to be careful with -- I make enough lactase for some, but only small quantities. So a population eating a relatively low lactose containing product like aged cheese should quickly adapt to it. The han population just didn't incorporate dairy into their diet. It would be fascinating to see if lactase increases in the Japanese population -- gassiness isn't a life-or-death thing, so natural selection won't be much of a factor, but sexual selection surely must be acting here.

                    1. re: tmso

                      Milk has been a part of Japanese school lunch programs for many years and there is still the practice of home milk delivery in many parts of Japan. The research on lactose intolerance seems to be in regards to genetic disposition. The historical lack of dairy in Japanese cuisine (no idea about Chinese) is very likely from the prohibition of cattle under Buddhist rescripts. Once these were abolished in 1860's, cheese and milk became popular, though usually in the context of Western cuisine and not locally adapted recipes. Dairy just doesn't go well with seaweed, fish, and soy-based things.

                      1. re: Silverjay

                        I personally think milk goes very well with tofu and fish. Anyhow, the lack of dairy cows probably comes from a more basic issue: lack of space. A cow requires a lot of pasture. Pigs require less space, so they are more efficient to raise. I've also been told you can get more meat out of a pig than a cow.

                      2. re: tmso

                        I think this is a case where cart before the horse or horse before the cart is optional. The bottom line is that when experiments with dairy (from any animal) result in gastric duress for the majority, the incentive to keep trying sort of falls by the wayside.

                        And yes, for those who have mentioned it, there are pockets in Asia where cheese and milk products are old traditions among population groups that are obviously not troubled by milk products. As a general rule of thumb, the farther east you go on the Asian continent, the greater the development of milk and cheese products, not to mention yogurt in all of its forms. I once narrowly escaped yak butter tea. <whew< That would have made me lactose intolerant, but not from a gastric problem. It's my taste buds that were in revolt!

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          You mean the farther west you go on the Asian continent.

                          1. re: PeterL

                            Exactly. Too much multi-tasking is bad for one's sense of direction. Thanks!

                          2. re: Caroline1

                            Hmm...well, but if lactose tolerance is what humans have developed rather than lactose intolerance, then at some point somebody did find the incentive to "keep trying," otherwise Westerners wouldn't eat dairy either.

                            As for "dairy not going well," I know that many find the combo of cheese and seafood gauche, but screw it, I often like it, even as a purported Italophile—starting with lox and cream cheese / herring and sour cream and going from there. Tuna melts. Oysters broiled with parmesan. Etc.

                            1. re: tatamagouche

                              Not necessarily. The lactose intolerance has a strong tie to certain ethnic groups. You can find lots of information about it on the web. It's not a uniform trait in all homo sapien sapiens.

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                So you're saying it might be not only a matter of tolerance/intolerance but of degrees thereof—that some groups' stronger intolerance might equal lesser incentive?

                                (I could look it up, but that's what I have Chowhounds for!)

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  Yup. Basically you've got a pretty good grasp of the overall picture.

                              2. re: tatamagouche

                                In addition to Asians, Native Americans are/were lactose intolerant. There are records of a battle fought about 1000 AD that resulted when a group of Native Americans got violently ill after recieving a bucket of milk from some Viking colonists. The natives thought they had been poisoned.

                                There was no cheese in the Western Hemisphere until the Spanish arrived.

                                1. re: OnkleWillie

                                  Onkle -- I was just thinking about that story as I read this thread. Do you by any chance have a source for it?

                                  1. re: mselectra

                                    It is from one of the Norse Sagas but I don't recall which one. It appears in one or more books I own so I'll look it up and post it here.

                                    1. re: OnkleWillie

                                      That would be Graenlandiga Saga, the story of Erik the Red and his son, Leif Ericsson, and their encounters with the skraelings (native people) in Vinland (North America).

                                      1. re: OnkleWillie

                                        The accounts of the milk incident appear in both the Greenlander’s Saga and the Erik the Red Saga – the two generally referred to as the Vinland Sagas. They refer to events that took place during the second year of Thorfinn Karlsevni’s (or Karlsefni) colonizing expedition to Vinland, A Google search of “vikings milk skraelings” or “thorfinn karlsevni” will bring up more hits than you can cover in a week. The two accounts of the milk incident differ.

                                        1. re: OnkleWillie

                                          Thank you very much! I had heard this story in a conference presentation years ago and periodically meant to find the source since then. Now maybe I'll get around to checking scholarly discussion of it some day. Thanks!!

                                    2. re: OnkleWillie

                                      Most adult MAMMALS are lactose intolerant. Human caucasians are one of the rare exceptions.

                                2. re: tmso

                                  I agree. Most asian americans I know who grew up drinking milk don't have lactose intolerance. I have no problems with it but my parents do. It's partially the nature of enzymes, use it or lose it.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    It might sneak up on you! As a kid I drank milk at least 3 times a day, but suddenly in my late teens all my lactase deserted me. Same thing happened to my sister and my cousins. I am ever grateful for lactose free milk.

                                    1. re: mogo

                                      Same here, except I no longer drink milk because I don't like it.

                                      1. re: tjr

                                        Me 3, I think mine started in my mid-to-late 20's. At first I thought I had a bad case of food poisoning... but for some reason, I have gotten better the last few years after I start consuming some of the probiotic products.

                                3. re: Caroline1

                                  Okay, wait a second. There is very little lactose in most cheeses. As a practical matter, people who are lactose intolerant can eat most cheeses without any problems. OTOH, perhaps a culture that is lactose intolerant might decide not to explore the permutations of milk. But, then again, one would think that the Chinese, with such a long and distinguished heritage of exploring everything edible, would certainly have sussed out milk in all of its forms.

                                  1. re: Bob Brooks

                                    It likely has to do with the fact that historically the Chinese used cattle mainly as draught animals. Due to the strains that a large population placed on food production coupled with numerous famines, grazing was not the most efficient land use. One Chinese emperor, when told that the starving masses had no rice to eat replied, "let them eat grass!"